We were on the Santa Cruz mountain in Jamaica at the dawn of Easter Sunday 1956, attending the sunrise service with the Bethlehem Moravian Church in their cemetery some two thousand feet above the plains of south St Elizabeth . Surrounded by gravestones we sang our praises to God who, in Jesus Christ, crucified and raised, has overcome the forces of sin and death and opened the way to life for all.
Today in the UK, and in just about every country worldwide, we are more immediately conscious of death than most of us in the ‘developed’ world have been for years. The coronavirus pandemic means that the ‘D’ word, which we have largely avoided needing to say or think about, is now forced into the forefront of our minds. Many of us now have a more heightened awareness of death as an immediate reality than we had previously envisaged.
The painful shock of bereavement and loss was what Mary, the friends of Jesus, Mary, his mother, and others in their family felt on that first Easter weekend two thousand years ago in Judea. Their dearly loved friend and teacher had been arrested and then killed cruelly by crucifixion; that followed an outpouring of hatred and resistance by respectable and religious people against Jesus who had challenged attitudes and practices that they held dear.
All four gospels give extensive accounts of the arrest, trial and crucifixion of Jesus (Mark 14 & 15, Matthew 26 & 27, Luke 22 & 23, John 18 & 19). Luke tells of the conversation between Jesus and the two men crucified on either side of him (Luke 22: 32-43). That harrowing scene has been depicted many times in music, verse and paintings. There’s a painting in a prison chapel on the Isle of Wight which depicts that scene in a very personal way. It was painted by a prisoner who imagined himself as one of the two men and he is looking down at a woman and their children who had come to be with him at his death. The woman is desolate, the older child, a boy, is clearly bored and wants to get away, but something special is happening to the younger child. There is the shadow of a cross falling on her, the shadow of the cross of Jesus.
That prisoner artist was clearly aware that Jesus was crucified and that two men, both criminals, were on either side of him. When I first saw that painting, and again from time to time since then, I have wondered what the prisoner artist was wanting to say as he painted the scene in such a personal way. Was he thinking that perhaps, after all, there was hope for the young child, if not for him and the rest of his family? I’ve wanted to tell him that the good news was for him also!
But the fact is that the death of Jesus on the cross is good news only because of what happened two days later, when he was raised to life. How many of us would even know the name Jesus but for the fact that he was raised from death? The gospel writers give us accounts that vary in some ways, but all four clearly state that the Jesus killed by crucifixion two days later was raised to life (Matthew 28, Mark 16, Luke 24, John 20 & 21).
Easter Day each year is when we especially celebrate God’s victory over sin and death. That trust and life in Jesus, crucified and raised to life, is at the essential heart of the faith of Christians, celebrated in all our worship and lived out day by day.
It was still dark as I walked towards the entrance to Wesley Methodist Church Savanna-la-Mar one Easter Day in 1961. ‘Aunt Theda’, as our church organist was called by many, was calling to me, “Alleluia, Christ is risen!” “Yes, that’s right,” I replied and then she said, “Parson, you mustn’t say just say ‘Yes’. You must say, ‘He is risen indeed, alleluia!’”
That is when I first learned the ancient Easter Day greeting, expressing the common faith of those who love and trust the living Lord Jesus. Such an affirmation of faith can stir heart and mind to trust and follow the way of the living Lord Jesus into a meaningful and hopeful future. Alleluia!
I end with words by Charles Wesley, hoping that you can read and say them as your own heart-felt prayer, and as a signpost into a more hopeful future.
Christ, whose glory fills the skies,
Christ, the true, the only Light,
Sun of Righteousness, arise,
Triumph o’er the shades of night;
Day-spring from on high, be near;
Day-star, in my heart appearCharles Wesley (1707-1788)